As electioneering heats up, the tensed debates around the religion of the presidential candidates will steam. Presently, the religious dialogue is about the savviness of a “Muslim-Muslim” ticket which, as we have been told, is the only combination that guarantees electoral success for a candidate whose regional supporters are apparently too close-minded to vote for a Christian. Since the said candidate’s party wields incumbency, they can very well win. What this means is that after four or eight years, when power returns to the North, we might have to settle for another Muslim candidate since the politically dominant northern Muslim voting bloc is too parochial to have it any other way. Ceteris paribus, our religion-confined choices could mean 24 straight years of Muslim leadership.
Religious associations, like the Christian Association of Nigeria and Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, must have done the arithmetic because some denominational leaders have blatantly urged their members to vote only a Christian as president. They did not need to state whom but we can deduce that their endorsed candidate is Peter Obi since he is the only Christian among the frontrunners. What these clerics are doing is not peculiar; it is the nature of Nigerian politics. It is futile to intervene in issues of religious politics in Nigeria by asking clerics to stay neutral. The very fact that we ask people to vote their conscience is enough grounds for religion to be aggregated into their choices. Religion is a calculus that cannot be unmoored from the nuanced systems of morality that shape electoral decisions.
Pretending that religion does not matter is imprudent politics. Even if religion as a system of values and ethics does not matter because it hardly brings tangible benefits to voters, the sentiments it awakens in people still go a long way. No reasonable politician overlooks this reality in their calculations. Perhaps no one has worked the religious sensibility of the average voter better than the incumbent president, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), who rode to power on the horse of religious emotions. Buhari’s journey to power started when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo became the president in 1999. The ascendance of a Christian to power so rankled some northern Muslims that Zamfara governor, Sani Yerima’s political retort was to inaugurate the Sharia law. That controversial law was to delegitimise the Christian president and counterbalance what they saw as the rising political influence of Christianity.
In 2001, after a riot over Sharia claimed many lives, the Obasanjo government asked for its reversal. Buhari was the only northern political figure who loudly and vehemently insisted otherwise. That was when he reportedly said, “I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria. God willing, we will not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the Sharia in the country.” His stance earned him admiration and a mass following among religious fundamentalists. The opportunist in Buhari saw his rising popularity as his chance to return to power and he went on to contest power in 2003. He lost. In 2007, he competed again and this time, it was against another northern Muslim, Umaru Yar’Adua. He still lost. As long as Yar’Adua was alive, Buhari’s fanaticism was nationally unsellable.
When Yar’Adua died in office and his Christian deputy gained power, the interest in Buhari as the restorer of what Muslims had lost became more fervent. When he lost against a Christian in 2011, it was more than an electoral failure for the irredentists who composed the bulk of his following. The ferocity of the violence they unleashed, and the unfortunate targets of their ire, revealed that their investment in his candidature went beyond an interest in democracy and its processes. One can imagine the primal evil they would have brought upon the country if he had lost again in 2015.
Religion has always haunted our politics, which is why some of the analyses of the 2023 elections that tritely ask people to overlook religion have been an amusing read. The writers leap over the history that brought Buhari to power and jump straight to the 1993 presidential election where a Muslim-Muslim ticket ostensibly did not matter. Reading them, one would think Nigeria was frozen in time for 30 years. Religion will always be a factor in Nigerian political matters because people do not vote in a historical or moral vacuum. They typically vote for the person they identify with and religion is a potent basis of shared identity. It is also why our religious debates get reduced to “Christian vs. Muslims.” It is not because practitioners of African traditional religions, atheists, agnostics or other faiths do not exist. They do, but collectively, they do not represent a bloc large enough for their interests to be factored. Our society is presently designed to accommodate only the political ambitions of Christians or Muslims, which is why there is so much religious pretension out there.
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Voting religion (and region) also gives people an illusion of representation in a country where democracy has no sustained meaning and its institutions lack political efficacy. The Nigerian identity itself is near worthless. What else passionately connects Nigerians from one region of the country with another outside their shared religious heritage? One would imagine that Nigerians’ consistent suffering through different administrations should mobilise them across tribes and tongues, but no. The average Nigerian will rather settle for the mere symbolism of being the dominant class than ally with their fellow impoverished country people to challenge the political class collectively.
Religion cannot but be a strong factor in a country like Nigeria where access to power is the ultimate determinant of destinies. Those who bid for political power using religion are not trying to endow politics with the truth of their faith. They will not even reckon with their religious constituents when they get to power unless it serves their politics. Politicians want power for their purposes and playing the religious card evokes the passions that translate into a resolute conviction to take partisan sides. In a country where most people understand that politics will not significantly improve their lives, how else do you mobilise them to the polling booths other than inflaming emotions and asking them to rise against an imaginary enemy?
By 2023, Nigeria would have had a Muslim president for eight years. Even though he got into power by whipping up religious sentiments, he has barely served his religious constituents beyond a few elites in the corridors of power. The mass of people who saw Buhari as a crusader for their religion has been mere tools for serving his ambition. If you asked any of those who voted for a Muslim in 2015 if their lives are significantly better than those of their non-Muslim counterparts, the honest ones will answer “no.” We have all been victims of Buhari’s abject incompetence regardless of our religions. But here is the fun fact: come 2023, those same people who voted Buhari will still double down on voting religion. The fact that a Muslim president failed them once – and many times if you count previous instances of military regimes – is not enough to deter them. And that brings me to another point.
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If people do not vote for religion or region, what exactly can we expect them to vote for? For instance, when you compare the Peoples Democratic Party’s candidate, Atiku Abubakar, with his All Progressives Congress counterpart, Bola Tinubu, what difference exists between them that one can be persuaded to vote for either one outside the factors of religion (and region)? What distinct economic, political and social ideology does either candidate represent that one can plank a reasonable choice? At least, in advanced democracies where they have their versions of identity politics, substantive issues and ideological differences between competitors still inform voting choices.
Nigeria has no right – or left-wing political ideology. Politicians, regardless of the party/platforms that brought them to power, agree and disagree on matters based on how much federal allocation is ultimately involved. They do not even remember their own party manifesto, so how can it ever even guide their politics? Whatever constitutes their political ideology is improvised and revisable based on what and where it gets them. Without a stated vision of a better Nigeria, what is there for anyone to advocate through their electoral choices? The political class just want to make enough money to escape to saner climes and buy a better life for themselves and their families. What else is left for the poor voter that manages to make it to the polling booth on election day to choose from other than wade through the murky pool of the sentiments of religion/region?